So what is it about braids?
Says one woman: "It's easy. You don't have to do nothing, just tie your hair up with a scarf at night, take the scarf off, and you're good to go for about a month.
On the street and in trendy clubs like Jimmy's Uptown, where braids and braid variations like dreadlocks and twists are all the rage. One braided lady says she attracts a better quality of men. "Actually," she explains, "I meet different men now. When I have my hair blown dry, I kind of meet, like, the snobs, the Wall Streeters. But when I have my hair like this, I kind of meet the down-to-earth men, kind of easy-going."
And though the final look is New York-sophisticated, it's often being created in an atmosphere that's more African market than upscale salon. Scores of Harlem beauty parlors are run by recent immigrants who, like so many African Americans before them, feel a sense of identity there.
Asana Paltz and her sisters are from the Ivory Coast in West Africa but their staff is definitely pan-African One knows how to braid "Togo style." Another one braids "Sierra Leone" style.
Says she, "It's amazing how you can look in the book, and say, 'I want this,' and they can do it! They bring it all the way back from their country."
The Harle braid scene has attracted admirers from all over the world, including Kami, a Japanese college student who got a braid tutorial. Says she, "Because I had braids before, and I think it's art. It is beautiful, and I just fell in love "
In fact, the ancient craft of braiding really is being recognized as "Art." Record crowds are flocking to the Los Angeles Museum of African Art for an exhibit on the traditions and significance of "Hair in African Art and Culture."
In many cultures, your hair proclaims who you are and what is happening in your life at that time, explains education curator Evelyn Carter. For example, a new bride in French Guinea might wear one particular style, while a Massai warrior in Tanzania would wear another.
Young girls line up at the museum's "braid bar," to experiment with the old techniques that are inspiring new fashions.
And back in Harlem, the big fuss over braids make perfect sense to Pam Johnson, whose parents met in Harlem when her Dad pulled the ribbons in her Mom's braids. She has just co-edited a book called "Tenderheaded: A Comb-Bending Collection of Hair Stories," a subject she says is very sensitive in the black community, dating from the days of slavery:
Says she, "And when we come over here, we are very aware that we're different, and one of the ways that we are very different is in the texture of our hair, and it wasn't, for a long time, considered beautiful. People spent a lot of time and a lot of money to make it look different."
Braid represent a kind of homecoming, she adds: "You can come back to your own hair, and you can greet the world and feel comfortable."
Of course, the braids that grace the hip in Harlem are showing up on lots of other folks these days. Superstar performers like Brandy and Christina Aguilar, tennis champs Venus and Serena Williams, and the NBA's Latrell Sprewell and Allen Iverson.
Off the courts, men like Henry Simons, a New York City transit worker, are wearing a variety of braid-related styles, including the Caribbean twists known as dreadlocks or locks. Still, he says, even today, some bosses are put off by braids on men. So why is Simons willing to chance it?
"I like to rock the boat," he explains with a smile.
And there are lots of boat rockers filling up salon chairs in Harlem -- not only in African Braiding Parlors but more traditional salons there as well. Simons gets his locks done at Turning Heads, headquartered in the Harlem YMCA for 15 years. Says owner Shannon Ayers, "For most of us, it's really a very personal form of self-expression. It's my way of expressing myself and allowing the world to see me as I choose to let the world see me."
So, stylists, working under a historic mural by Harlem renaissance artist Aaron Douglas, give clients twists or coils, or elaborate sculptures. Top-of-the-lne creations can cost as much as $95. A simpler braid can cost as little as $25.
Read more about "Tenderheaded."
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